Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beware the hype about special election in Florida -- March 13, 2014 column


If you’ve ever looked at a leaf through a microscope, you know that tiny details appear enormous.

A special election is a rare moment in politics when the nation focuses its telescope on a single contest and then greatly magnifies the results.

Back in 1991, in a special Senate election, newly appointed Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania handily defeated Republican challenger Dick Thornburgh, and pundits read the tea leaves to say that health care had instantly jumped to the top of the national agenda.

Wofford did champion health care reform, as did Bill Clinton, elected president the next year. But we know how the Clinton health plan turned out.

In 1994, Wofford lost his Senate seat to a 36-year-old upstart named Rick Santorum. Health reform foundered for another decade.

When Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special House election in New York in an upset in 2011, analysts saw it as a sign Democrats would make fighting a Republican plan to cut Medicare their No.1 issue. By 2012, Hochul’s district had been redrawn, and Medicare was old news. She lost her seat. 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Republican David Jolly won Tuesday’s closely watched special House election in Florida, pundits saw it as a big deal. One political editor in the Sunshine State lifted his eyes from the microscope and said it was a “big, big, big, big win” for Republicans.

It was a win, certainly, but a narrow one.

The late C.W. Bill Young, a Republican, had held the seat more than 40 years. Jolly, who was Young’s former aide and general counsel, won by 3,400 votes out of 183,000 cast. It’s believed to be the costliest special election in history with about $12 million spent, most -- $9 million -- by outside groups.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District in Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast was subject to a blizzard of negative ads. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, ran a TV spot blasting Democrat Alex Sink for her support of Obamacare, claiming that 300,000 Floridians will lose their current coverage and that the law will hurt seniors, families and others.

“With Alex Sink, the priority is Obamacare -- not us,” the narrator intones.

Republicans say the special election foreshadows GOP gains in congressional races this fall. Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast,” said Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Had Democrats won, they too would have played up the significance, claiming it portends victories in November and a strengthened Democratic hand in the Senate. Instead, they said it was unsurprising that the seat stayed Republican. Still, they couldn’t deny that the loss is disappointing and could affect morale.

But what neither party says is how few seats are actually in play in November. Most districts have been drawn to favor incumbents and avoid tight races, so even though all 435 House seats are up in the midterm election, about 370 are considered safely Republican or Democratic. The House is expected to remain in Republican control for Obama’s final two years.

In the Senate, Republicans need six seats to wrest control from Democrats. That’s where Republicans hope their relentless attacks on the president and his health care law pay off.  

For his part, with six months until the election, Obama is already warning Democrats about the consequences of complacency and staying home.  

“In the midterms, Democrats too often don’t vote,” the president said March 6 at a Democratic National Committee event in Boston. “Too often, when there’s not a presidential election we don’t think it’s sexy; we don’t think it’s interesting. People tune out. And…we get walloped. It’s happened before and it could happen again.”

It could. So much depends on what happens in the next six months that it’s wise, when you hear anyone  talking about the significance of the Republican victory in Florida, to remember the leaf under the microscope. 

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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